Horsetail is one of the oldest of plants and a long-used folk remedy for the urinary system, cystitis, incontinence, bedwetting, and prostate problems. It is the leading source of plant silica, and so helps where this mineral is deficient, as shown by symptoms like brittle nails, thin hair, and allergies. Externally, it is good for rheumatism, chilblains, and skin problems, and helps wounds, joints, and sprains to heal.
Description: A leafless non-flowering perennial with hollow, jointed stems, growing up to a foot tall. It looks like a miniature Christmas tree, and has spreading green teeth on the stem sheath.
Habitat: Roadsides, gardens, and waste ground.
Distribution: Widespread in Europe, Asia, and North America. Introduced to the southern hemisphere.
Related species: Two other species have a traditional medicinal use: wood horsetail (E. sylvaticum), similar to field horsetail but more delicate and drooping at the tip; and rough horsetail (E. hyemale), which has no branches. The other horsetail species are not used for medicine.
Parts used: Above-ground parts harvested in summer.
When we say horsetail is old we do really mean old: relatives of our one foot-tall common plant grew a hundred feet tall and were the forest trees of the Carboniferous age, roughly 270-370 million years ago. You can see fossilized traces of proto-horsetail in lumps of domestic coal today, and apart from size the prehistoric and modern look uncannily alike.
The name equisetum refers to "horse" and "bristle," giving rise to the common English name. To the Romans it was "hair of the earth."
Horsetail is now esteemed as the main source of silica in the plant world. In effect little more than a skeleton of silica, it contains 30% or more of this element, depending on the soil; the burnt ash has over 80% silica.
Such a rich natural source of silica was recognized long ago. Old names of horsetail include pewterwort, shave-grass and bottlebrush, which hint at its ability to scour but not damage pewter, and safely polish wood and glass. The plant was sold in London streets up to the eighteenth century for such purposes. It is said that powdered horsetail ash mixed with water is still the best silver cleaner.
Another unique quality of the plant is that it doesn't have leaves or flowers as such, and spreads by means of spores, like a fern.
In spring, fertile stems grow up from deep underground rhizomes. These stems are bare with conelike heads full of spores - "drumsticks poking out of the ground," says one author. Another writer thinks it "resembles moth-eaten asparagus." These softish stems die back and are replaced in summer by segmented, stiff and infertile stems with narrow leaves sprouting from nodes, something like pine needles on a bamboo.
While the spore stems can be eaten, and were favored by the Romans as a tonic salad, the silicarich summer stems are better used for cleaning your pots and for their herbal qualities.
Is horsetail toxic?
You may have read that horsetail is toxic or that it can irritate the digestive tract.
Horsetail is toxic to livestock if they eat large quantities of it. With horses, a thiamine (vitamin B-|) deficiency is caused when they eat hay contaminated with horsetail. Thiaminase, which causes this, is destroyed by heat, so is not present in a horsetail tea or syrup.
Horsetails do contain alkaloids, including palustrine, but there don't seem to be any records of toxicity in humans. We've had no experience of horsetail causing irritation when using it long-term as a tea in combination with other herbs.
It seems that horsetail would be more likely to irritate if it is taken in capsules as a powdered herb where the non-soluble silica is ingested, and yet many herbalists use horsetail in capsule form with good results. Water extracts of horsetail are unlikely to cause irritation.
To be safe: Do not eat large quantities of horsetail and avoid the species of horsetail not normally used medicinally.
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